Where to eat
I love to eat, and many of my favorite restaurants in the world are close to home. The fact that I’m vegan doesn’t limit my options here, either, with so much fresh, local, seasonal produce and chef consciousness to various dietary preferences.
Continue exploring the people, places and the lore that make the Westside such a unique place.
Among the best on the Westside is Bantam. With delicious craft cocktails, a wood-burning pizza oven and creative entrees in a light, airy space, this restaurant feels as if it could be in San Francisco or another culinary capital. What I love even more is that since the pandemic, Bantam has outdoor space where it didn’t before. There’s an enclosed patio and a few side tables adjacent to the parking lot that make you feel like you’re having your own semi-secret, oddly romantic, private-dining experience. The parking lot tables for two with heat lamps make it my favorite date-night spot when my husband and I can snag an evening to ourselves.
Venus Spirits’ Venus Cocktails & Kitchen is the restaurant extension of Sean Venus’ distillery and tasting room in the Westside industrial park off of Delaware Avenue. It has the best Brussels sprouts in town — and I would actually say, in the world. Don’t take my word for it, go eat them. Creative cocktail concoctions include Beach Don’t Kill My Vibe (Venus’ Gin Blend No. 01, strawberry, lemon, basil), Frozen Paloma Libre (El Ladrón Blanco, Giffard pamplemousse liqueur, Aperol, riesling, lime, grapefruit) and Gun Smoke (Wayward single malt whiskey, Nux walnut liqueur, Averna chocolate bitters, peated whiskey spritz, charred cinnamon).
For a casual daytime bite, Steamer Lane Supply, which finally arrived in 2016, is my go-to spot. West Cliff Drive desperately needed a cafe and food stop to replenish hungry surfers and stroller pushers — I’ve been both! Just across the street from the surfers memorial at the Steamer Lane staircase, Steamer Lane Supply offers poke bowls, quesadillas — even a curried-tofu “vegandilla” — kimchi rice, tacos and sandwiches—something to satisfy any post-surf, -walk or -bike ride craving.
Emphasizing comfort food and desserts, chef Jesikah Stolaroff named her family restaurant Vim for the 1920s phrase, “vim and vigor,” which means “lively and thriving,” which this place certainly is. The space used to be a Thai restaurant before the owners retired, then was briefly a ramen place, and nothing seemed to last until Stolaroff got her kitchen into it. I first ate there for a Lookout restaurant writeup and was immediately hooked. Stolaroff cooks for every kind of eater — there’s always a vegan appetizer, entree and dessert, and gluten-free options aplenty, along with creative cocktails and a thoughtfully curated wine list.
I was so excited when Copal moved into another space that prior to that couldn’t seem to quite find its way. I grew up in Mexico and traditional mole was a favorite childhood food. Now I can have it not only close to home, but in vegan versions. And mezcal is better than tequila: smoky, flavorful and a delight to sip in a flight or as part of a specialty cocktail. My favorite is the Oaxacaloha, because it combines my other favorite—tiki—with an Oaxacan flavor.
Copal comes courtesy of Lupulo co-owners Noëlle Antolin and Stuyvie Bearns Esteva, who partnered with chef Ana Fabian Mendoza to bring traditional and creative Oaxacan cuisine and Santa Cruz’s first mezcaleria to the beautifully revamped space on the corner of Laurel and Mission streets.
Sabieng is a longtime local favorite for Thai cuisine on the Westside, a Mission Street staple known for tasty green curry, fresh spring rolls and excellent pad Thai. You’ll find traditional staples like noodle dishes, stir-fries over rice, and peanut-sauce fresh rolls, as well as specials. It’s my 6-year-old’s favorite to-go spot, which she requests by asking for “Thai food noodles.”
Going to New Leaf is, I’ll admit it, often a highlight of my week, but that’s not because my life is sad — rather, this grocery store makes shopping engaging and fun. The Westside outpost has always been more than just a grocery store. It’s a community hub, and depending on the day can feel like a sanctuary or bustling grocery-gathering party. Either way you’ll find locally sourced produce, plentiful care products, a sandwich bar, fine wines and beers, a to-go prepared-foods counter with fresh creations and friendly staff. We get takeout avocado rolls and açai smoothies and sit out at the big communal table (not so communal during the pandemic, but still nice).
Lately, I miss the “Little Leafer” free fruit basket that kept little ones occupied munching on an apple or pear while parents shop, but maybe it’ll be back soon.
Your guide to local food and drink all over Santa Cruz County from veteran food scene reporter Lily Belli.
Beer & wine
In the “before times,” trivia night at Stockwell Cellars with a flight of local wines was my go-to entertainment. Recently, Stockwell has brought back trivia night and food trucks, so make a reservation and grab your mask to enjoy this cozy family-owned winery featuring local wines on tap, by the flight, glass, or bottle. During the pandemic, the outdoor patio sprouted and is still a great outdoor spot with heat lamps and barrels for seating.
Around the corner on Ingalls Street is MJA Vineyards, which serves wines from the family’s vineyard on a mellow patio, at times with live music on the deck, and because of its tucked-away location tends to be somewhat less crowded. (Shhhh.)
I don’t drink beer, except for when friends suggest Santa Cruz Mountain Brewing, then I do. This woman-owned microbrewery and beer garden with an award-winning organic selection of beers is known for unique ales. And right around the corner is Humble Sea Brewery, where I’ll drink an IPA. Three friends from the Santa Cruz Mountains started the brewery with a dare-we-say humble mission: to create the best locally crafted beer around. The crowd sizes on the patio prove their success in doing so. Try the IPAs.
The Westside boasts plentiful coffee shops, whether for a West Cliff walk to-go cup or to park yourself for the remote workday. Charles Jack, co-owner of Cat & Cloud cafes — which has a large airy cafe/light bites eatery and roastery on Swift Street — says the Westside team “does a great job of creating joy — whether its being greeted by name, getting your drink just the way you like it, there’s something special about walking into a cafe and feeling joy for the experience.” Coffee makes me joyful, too, and here are some primo Westside spots to grab some. (Or tea or hot chocolate, if coffee’s not what brings you joy.)
The newest addition on the church-adjacent coffee scene, Shrine’s beautiful, airy space with woodwork built from two century-old Monterey cypress trees removed — for safety purposes — from the adjacent Gateway School campus. “Every piece of lumber you see in the cafe came from these trees!” a display announces, “You can see signs of rot and decay which now add beautiful character to the wood and tells the story of its life.” Talk about upcycling! A cozy fireplace and outdoor patio seating surrounding a relaxing fountain provide ambient backdrops for sipping your latte or tea, or stroll through the garden paths.
The beautiful Westside headquarters of the Cat & Cloud cafe — whose original outpost is on Portola Drive in Pleasure Point — might be its best yet. A full menu including delicious greens & grains bowl, breakfast burrito and avocado toast with turmeric-pickled carrots and shallots provides sustenance to go along with the excellent ethically sourced roasts. And in the Swift Street Courtyard, 11th Hour serves beer and wine in addition to coffee drinks, and a full menu.
Finally, Verve, that most iconic of Santa Cruz hipster cafes, has an airy, plant-filled location on Ingalls adjacent to Bantam and across the street from New Leaf. The vibe is right for a quiet work-and-study spot or a catch-up over cappuccino.